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Book Reviews

Posted 9/8/2013

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  I want to draw your attention to two new and important books: Knocking on Heaven's Door by Katy Butler and Cancer Chronicles by George Johnson. Full disclosure: I have ordered both books, but not yet read them. I have read a number of reviews and know that I am (hopefully you, too) promised thought-provoking and very relevant reading.

  Knocking on Heaven's Door is about the American way of death. Because I do the work that I do and spend so much time in a hospital, I am acutely aware of how high-tech, low-personal, expensive, impersonal, and seemingly torturous the very end of life can be. Very few of us would choose this kind of death, but it can happen unless we are brave enough to have the necessary conversations with our families and our doctors. Even as we hope for many years of good health, we owe ourselves and our families a chance to talk about our wishes. I refer you, for this conversation, to Five Wishes (; this is a superb document that guides you through the possibilities and the options.

  But back to the books. Here is a little about the first one from her website:

:“Knocking on Heaven’s Door” explores how medical technology’s brilliance at keeping us alive is helping us forget the spiritual technology of the Good Death. Based on an acclaimed New York Times magazine piece, this exquisite memoir and groundbreaking exposé of modern medicine will change the national conversation about the end of life.Like millions of Americans caring for aging parents, award-winning science writer Katy Butler assumed that her beloved mother and father would meet death on their own terms, free from medical overdoing. She was wrong.After doctors refused to disable the pacemaker that helped her 84-year-old father’s heart to outlive his brain, she set out to understand why medicine, which saved his life as a young man, did little at the end but prolong his worst years. Her quest had barely begun when her mother rebelled against her doctors, refused open-heart surgery, and insisted on meeting death the old fashioned way: head-on. Knocking on Heaven’s Door is the fruit of the family’s journey, and a map through the labyrinth that modern dying has become.With a poet’s eye, a daughter’s love, and an investigative reporter’s skill, Butler lays bare the wrenching moral choices we face when the ancient reality of death collides with the technological imperatives of modern medicine. Starting with the mid-20th-century inventors of lifesaving devices like the pacemaker, she chronicles our astonishingly successful war on sudden death and its aftermath: a tangled marriage of technology, medicine and commerce that has created some of the most painful, expensive, and prolonged ways of dying known to human history.

The second book, Cancer Chronicles,  looks equally wonderful. From The New York Journal of Books:

“. . . a masterpiece of clarity . . . fascinating . . .”

What do you do when your wife is diagnosed with a rare metastatic cancer? New York Times science writer George Johnson decided to find out as much as he could about the disease and its origins.

This book, which has been likened to Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of all Maladies, although the focus and style are noticeably different, charts his family’s journey through illness and treatments along with some unexpected twists and turns.

In our lifetime, cancer is a condition likely to affect almost all of us. Mr. Johnson succinctly describes its paradox, “With so many checks and balances, a person must be extraordinarily lucky to get cancer. Then again, with so many things that can go wrong, it is amazing that cancer doesn’t happen all the time.”






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